Once hoped-for rain now threatens Oakland's hills Fire-ravaged area fears new disaster

October 27, 1991|By Martin C. Evans | Martin C. Evans,Sun Staff Correspondent

OAKLAND, Calif. -- For months, James R. Tuckner had cast his eyes westward, over the San Francisco Bay, hoping that the next day or the next would bring rain to his dry, mountaintop neighborhood in Oakland.

"I don't know if there is a person in California who wasn't praying for rain," Mr. Tuckner said. "But ask me now, and I might feel a little differently."

Those lucky enough to still have houses in Oakland's hilly neighborhoods are now concerned that rain could do what the flames of last weekend's destructive wildfire had not done: destroy their homes.

Many of them had spent an anxious Friday night as several inches of rain, the first in months in this tinder-dry part of the country, beat down on hillsides left bare by a fire that destroyed some 3,350 homes and blackened close to 1,800 acres of prime real estate.

More rain was expected by Tuesday.

"If it starts coming, we could have a problem," said Mr. Tuckner, a tall, sandy-haired owner of an engineering firm whose $600,000 house stands at the foot of a steep hill denuded of stabilizing grass and trees by the flames a week ago. "But it survived last night, so I don't think I have a problem."

Across the ravine from the Tuckner home, Shelley Wood was not so sure.

"Basically, we're left pretty unprotected," she said, standing in front of her beige stucco house in ankle-deep mud that a day before had been her backyard.

The home she and her husband built in May stands below a thicket of blackberries, Spanish broom and live oak, which helped anchor the soil of the hillside. With much of vegetation gone, the sudden rain had pushed much of their backyard into their front yard.

Once a vibrant community of lawyers, engineers, dentists, college professors, the hills are mostly silent now, save for the sound of the wind rustling the leaves of charred eucalyptus trees.

Search teams, aided by sniffing dogs and long metal probes, poked carefully through the ashes at some of the home sites in a grim search for the remains of 14 people still officially listed as missing.

The few human sounds were mostly made by workmen with soot-smudged faces, stubble beards and haggard expressions who used chain saws and bulldozers to fell dangerously charred trees and utility poles. Crews also continued efforts begun Friday to implement anti-erosion measures.

As the morning rain passed yesterday, residents made their way past police checkpoints to sift again through the charred remains of their homes. Loretta Sui, who owned a home on Fairlane Drive, arrived with shovels and bags of grass seed. She and several relatives plan to try to stabilize the bare hillside above her property by planting the seed.

"This is all we have left," her son, Howard Sui, said. "So we want to do what we can do."

The fire burned hot enough to melt the aluminum window frames of her home into shiny streams of molten metal.

She and her family, returning from an outing to San Francisco, had spotted the wildfire in the distance as they drove across the Oakland Bay Bridge, but by the time they got to their neighborhood police were not letting anyone up the hill where she lived. She lost everything.

"All my wedding pictures," Mrs. Sui said.

"All my memories."

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